How to Find Hand Pain Relief
The human hand is complex, delicate, and often taken for granted. It’s hard to think of an activity of daily living (ADL) that doesn’t require the regular use of one or both hands. Hand pain or wrist pain can make day-to-day tasks difficult, or even unbearable, if ignored or left untreated. There are numerous types of hand pain and an even larger number of causes. Each hand injury is unique, but hand pain can stem from inflammation, nerve compression or nerve damage, overuse, sprains, fractures, or more commonly, chronic nerve-damaging conditions such as arthritis.
If you’re experiencing chronic hand pain, we’re here to help. Read on for our guide on how to find hand pain relief.
Arthritis: early signs and symptoms
Arthritis is the leading cause of hand pain and is most simply defined as the inflammation of one or more joints, like the elbow. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, but the most common are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OA is a degenerative joint disease, also known as “wear and tear” to the cartilage which allows the bones forming joints in our bodies to glide smoothly. RA is a chronic disease in which joints become inflamed, leading to pain and stiffness. Common arthritis symptoms include:
- Dull/burning pain in joints at rest
- Pain during or after use
- Morning pain, stiffness, and/or swelling.
Managing pain at home
- Stay active. Studies show that physical exercise – your whole body, not just your hand – may help reduce arthritis hand pain and upper extremity pain, and fatigue. Talk with your healthcare provider about the types of exercise that may be best for you.
- Rest when you have flare-ups. When your joints feel painful or are swollen or stiff, take some time to rest the joints and conserve your energy. Some people choose to rest their hands in various types of splints or immobilizers, as a reminder to rest the joint. An Occupational Therapist can help with selecting the right splint or brace, or create something custom for you.
- Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight. Though there is not one, specific anti-inflammatory diet to follow, studies show that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help reduce inflammation. Weight loss may help reduce pressure on joints and ease pain.
- Meditate. Chronic pain studies showed that meditation had positive effects on pain, quality of life, and functional status. Even 5-10 minutes per day can make a difference.
- Get a massage. One study showed that just 60 minutes of massage once a week helped to ease knee pain due to osteoarthritis. Massage of hands and fingers, without causing pain, can improve circulation and desensitize nerve endings that carry pain signals.
- Improve your sleep! When we sleep, we heal. Inflammatory cycles re-set during sleep, and toxins produced by normal metabolism are removed from tissues during sleep. 7-8 hours per night are ideal.
- Adaptive equipment will help with everyday tasks: button hook, long-handled shoe horn, built-up utensils, doorknob grips, jar openers, etc. These simple tools can reduce the force and stress on joints during everyday tasks, lowering overall inflammation and pain.
- Use heat or ice. Heat will help with circulation, stiff joints, and tired muscles. Consider using heating pads and taking warm baths. Cold treatments may help to reduce acute swelling, but lower temperatures may exacerbate other arthritis symptoms. Moist heat is best and a very common symptom treatment! If you are using a heating pad, limit time to 20 minutes per application so your body doesn’t try to reverse the impact of the heat by shutting down circulation. Add a moist towel over the heating pad for the best impact.
- Stay informed and keep track of daily changes using a journal. When do you feel your best? What activities are happening prior to bouts of pain and swelling? Keep working with your healthcare provider. Talk about changes in your symptoms and refer to online and other published resources about the newest treatments and research findings.
How can a hand therapist help?
A certified hand therapist can be an occupational therapist (OT) or physical therapist (PT) who, through advanced continuing education, clinical experience, and integration of knowledge in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology, has become proficient in rehabilitation physical therapy treatments for upper extremity conditions resulting from trauma, disease, and acquired or chronic disease or deformity. For hand arthritis pain treatment or another long term chronic pain treatment for the hand, goals will typically include: improving the mobility and restoring the use of affected joints, increasing strength to support the joints, maintaining fitness, and MOST importantly, preserving the ability to perform meaningful activities that you need and want to do.
To start, an individualized plan is developed between you and your therapist. Your therapist may suggest a brace or custom splint to support painful joints and bring down pain level. Education will begin with proper posture and body mechanics for common daily activities to relieve pain and improve function. Joint protection principles will be introduced and reviewed throughout your plan of care. Modifications can be made to your home, work, or even car to relieve pain and improve function. Various specialized treatments to reduce joint inflammation may be included to accelerate the reduction of inflammation. Your therapist will also show you how to find and properly use any adaptive tools to make life easier.
Successful outcomes of your hand therapy treatment include: learning the specific and manual therapy exercises, understanding your condition and how to prevent and manage problems, as well as adapting tasks as needed over the long term. Improvement may be steady and gradual as your body adapts over time. Consistency is key!
If you suffer from persistent pain in your hand or upper extremities, find a certified hand therapist or occupational therapist today!
Article by: Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA
Holly is a practicing physical therapist, partner and Director of Clinical Services at Ivy Rehab Network with more than 40 years of experience in sports management with young athletes, and is board certified as a geriatric clinical specialist and certified exercise expert for aging adults. Deuer is certified as an aquatic and oncology rehabilitation specialist and serves as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.